How To Burn More Calories Without Breaking A Sweat

by | Sep 12, 2012

Photo by Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo

It’s amazing to me how easy it is to forget to move.

This year was the first time in about 5 years that I found myself gaining weight. It wasn’t a lot, just 5 lbs over 6 months or so, but it was strange for me since I didn’t think I was doing anything different.

I write and think about healthy living all the time, and I absolutely love the food I eat. I no longer crave sugar, and avoiding it isn’t hard. If anything I have eaten healthier than ever during this time, since I started working at home and control 100% of my meals. I’ve been eating the same or better quality food than I always have, and have even improved on my mindful eating techniques.

So what gives?

I didn’t think the problem was exercise, since I still go to the gym 4-6 days a week. My workouts have actually gotten better, and I’ve noticed welcome improvements in several aspects of my physique (thank you kettlebell!). I wasn’t upset about how I looked, I had just gotten slightly larger and didn’t know why.

Then about 6 weeks ago I figured it out: I had stopped walking.

When I was still in my PhD program I had a substantial walk to work, at least a mile each way if I took the campus shuttle, and about 2.5 miles each way if I walked the whole distance (I did this rarely, but tried to squeeze it in when I could). I also worked in the lab, running back and forth between rooms and up and down stairs to get equipment. Though I came home each evening and worked on Summer Tomato until the wee hours of the morning, I was not sedentary.

Even during my brief stint in the corporate world after graduation I had a walking commute to work. But after I quit in January I just stayed at home writing. At first I had a standing desk/table I was using, but logistics and a problematic elbow forced me to move to the coffee shop across the street where most of my work gets done now. This sedentary shift correlates exactly with when I noticed my pants getting tighter.

What’s crazy to me is that this amount of exercise seems so inconsequential it doesn’t even register in my brain until months after the change has occurred (did I mention I was still working out almost every day?). And it’s not like I never think about this stuff, I noticed when I first started walking that I effortlessly dropped weight. How could I forget that non-exercise activity (NEAT) is so important?

It’s easy to forget, but this is good news. It means that it is not a chore to burn more calories—in fact, you will hardly notice. All you need to do is make an effort to be a little more active throughout the day, and work to build more activity into your daily routine.

To solve my problem, I turned to my puppy Toaster. He needs to get out and walk a few times a day, so I thought why not improve both of our lives by making a daily pilgrimage to the bigger, better park that’s about a mile from the house instead of the smaller, dirtier park that is closer and more convenient? He gets more exercise and behaves better, I get my walk in, and we both have more fun. Win-win.

I’m happy to report that my pants are fitting better again and I’m back down to my normal weight.

If you don’t have a dog, there are plenty of other ways to move more. Avoid elevators and escalators, walk to lunch or between floors in your building, do chores more enthusiastically at home and park further away in the parking lot. Just standing up more can make a difference. These things add minuscule amounts of time to your tasks but add up significantly for your health.

Unlike structured, high-intensity exercise, walking and other low-intensity movements don’t make you hungrier. There’s good evidence that increasing your daily activity can burn hundreds of extra calories each day and may be one of the most effective ways to impact your energy balance (i.e. burn more without eating more). This is not true of more formal exercise, which tends to make people hungrier. Importantly, non-exercise activity correlates with body weight in obese as well as normal weight individuals, so everyone can benefit from extra movement.

Even if you already work out regularly you should still strive for additional daily activity. Amazingly, high-intensity exercise doesn’t lower your inclination toward NEAT, but raises it. In one study, scientists measured NEAT 3 days before and 3 days after overweight individuals performed either moderate or high-intensity exercise. There was no measurable change in NEAT until the third day after exercise, when it increased 17% after moderate activity and 25% after intense activity. That’s impressive.

When you’re as busy as I am, it’s easy to make excuses about why extra effort is impossible. But adding a little extra movement to your normal, daily activities is far and away the easiest way to lose weight and improve your health, so why not?

I’ve also found a substantial meditative value in incorporating more physical activity. Several of my most complex problems have been solved during my walks and I’ve been plowing through podcasts and audiobooks, which I swear makes me smarter (I’m currently loving The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore). Your brain truly appreciates a break from the screen.

Ironically, it took noticing that I was “reading” less to make me examine what was different in my life—I realized I was listening to fewer audiobooks because I was walking less, and put 2 and 2 together. Problem solved.

It’s easy to be lazy and just wait for the elevator with everyone else, even though you know the time it saves you is insignificant. But today I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s worth resisting that urge and making an effort to be more active. Try making it a game or competing with your friends using pedometers like the FitBit for extra motivation.

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Originally published September 12, 2011.


 

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43 Responses to “How To Burn More Calories Without Breaking A Sweat”

  1. Mo says:

    How about an updated photo of Toaster??? Thank you. Mo

    • Darya Pino says:

      Haha, aren’t you on Instagram? I post pics of him there all the time (also at his Twitter account).

      Here’s a funny one: http://instagr.am/p/KnIzH/

    • Katherine says:

      Thank you for writing this. One summer I made a commitment to myself to only sit during meals and for 1-2 hours of the day where I could go online or watch TV or read a book. It made a HUGE difference on my weight, and instead of wasting away time sitting in front of a screen I was actually getting things done and improving my health.

      I also just want to say that I am so glad to have found your website. After years of experimenting with this and that, and reading about nutrition all my life, this is the most sound advice I’ve ever heard. I love that you emphasize the importance of daily habits in food and exercise versus dieting which is temporary. This is really the key to long-term health and happiness I’ve come to learn.

  2. Hi Darya– I just recently stumbled on your blog and am sorry I didn’t discover it sooner! I love the scientific approach you take to food news and you do a great job of making research accessible. Great stuff — I’ll definitely be back! :)

  3. Amanda says:

    I loved that you outlined this so well. I moved from NYC to Austin just about 2 years ago and boy did I notice the difference in the walking. My weight shot up like crazy since I was driving everywhere and with reading/working I’m usually sitting. And even now that I’ve become more attuned to my needs, I still notice that I don’t walk much. Yes I go to the gym and ride my bike, but not nearly as much as activity as I did when I lived in NYC and walked everywhere.

    I can’t wait to share your article with some friends.

  4. julie says:

    I’ve noticed recently that I drop weight when I take a break from the gym, and am weight stable when gyming (yes I make up words) a lot. I wouldn’t say that the gym makes me hungry, but I do eat more beforehand to make sure I don’t bonk, and sometimes I eat more after because I did all that exercise, I’ll be extra hungry later, even if I’m not at the moment. This weekend, I was sick, so I went on some walks and some little bike rides, ate very little, because I wasn’t hungry and I wasn’t doing anything. I like my hard cardio, and am not going to give it up, but may have to have a new attitude on the eating behavior to sustain it.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Me too. In fact, one thing I used to do when I was in school was if I was too busy to hit the gym (always a double whammy on time because it requires a second shower/shampoo) I would just take an extra long walk home. It didn’t take as much time as hitting the gym, but I definitely got some movement in. I always lost weight during these times.

  5. Eileen says:

    Six months ago I moved from Chicago to a small town in Virginia for a new job. I also have noticed I’ve gained about 5 pounds despite the fact that I’ve been making serious efforts to eat healthier (cut way back on sugar/carbs) and continuing to exercise. I think it’s the same reason you detail here: I no longer have 30+ minutes of walking built into my day from my commute, and just like you I used to work in a lab where I was on my feet much more than I am now. It’s funny because when I first moved, I was very conscious of the decrease in walking, so I would purposefully go for walks after work in addition to my morning workouts. But somehow as time went on, I lost that habit (maybe because it got much warmer/humid in the summer). In any case, I know I need to re-focus on adding in movement to my day. Which means more walking after work (I like using shopping trips as an excuse for this!) or during my lunch break (I’m lucky enough that my office is right next to some nice wooded trails).

    I also saw this article last week: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/health/workout-at-work/
    I first laughed at all those animations, but then thought about it, and I am lucky enough to share an office with just one coworker who isn’t in all that often~ so I can get away with doing some silly looking moves during the day without anyone laughing at me :)

  6. TD says:

    This is great inspiration for me to try harder to walk for daily activities.
    Where do you usually get your audiobooks? I have noticed I absorb information differently when I listen instead of read, so I switched back to reading regular/kindle books now. How well do you think you absorb information from audiobooks compared to regular readings?

    • Darya Pino says:

      I subscribe to Audible.com and I love it. I definitely don’t take things in as well, so I listen to non-fiction almost exclusively. When I want fiction, I still prefer reading it myself on Kindle.

  7. aubrey says:

    I love love love this article. Having lived in Southern California for most of my life, one thing I really love about residing in Seattle now is the fact that I can walk so many more places. (It also allows me to indulge a tiny bit more in some of the amazing food we have up here!)

  8. Liz says:

    This is just what I needed! I recently moved to Portland and work from home, and over the past few months have gained about five pounds. Hard to understand since I’ve been working out like crazy, switching up my workout routine to try other high-intensity exercises, like mountain running, hot room yoga in addition to my weekly running regimen. Because I’m working out harder, I go through phases where my appetite spikes. Your explanation about keeping up with daily activity (walking, etc.) makes a lot of sense, thank you!

    • Shannon says:

      Liz, I did the same thing! I was working out hard for 5 months and saw NO CHANGE! :( Not until I scaled back, and watched my diet more did I see changes. I’m with you, girl!

  9. Linda says:

    I really appreciate this. I do cardio daily and strength training 3 times a week and also walk. Walking is by far my favourite exercise but I always read about it as sort of a non important exercise and to concentrate on the cardio.
    Its good to read about everyday extra movement being so good. Thankyou!

  10. Shannon says:

    This reminds me of the last couple months of my pregnancy when all I could do was swim… slowly! I thought, “Sheesh, this is barely a workout at all,” but when I went into labor, my resting heart rate was 46, the lowest it has ever been in my life! I guess all that slow swimming was really paying off after all!

  11. Sel says:

    I should walk up to the shops more often, rather than dropping in on my way home from somewhere else. It’s just so easy to put off and put off and put off!

    And I have to admit, I like breaking out a sweat in the name of a team sport or a gym workout for fatburning. But there’s nothing for slow-and-steady improvement like a regular walk to the train station on the way to work (or a coffee or something else)…

  12. Natalie says:

    Absolutely!
    I did not go much to the gym during the summer and lost weight. I also lost some muscle. But being with my kids the whole summer break, I did not sit much. I need to find a way to include less sitting during the school year. Listening to audiobooks is a great idea. I read a lot during my free time. Thanks, I’ll try that.

  13. Janet Nezon says:

    Thanks for this fabulous post Darya! One more reminder that it’s the little things we do every day that add up to have a huge impact on our overall health! I also love your endorsement of the health value of having a dog (preferably a labradoodle :)) in your life. In the 5 years since Gus, our chocolate labradoodle, came into our lives we are healthier in so many ways. In addition to all the exercise we get while walking him, he is a four-legged stress buster, and source of great love and wisdom! I’ve been writing about it for some time http://www.lessonsfromgus.wordpress.com I think Gus and Toaster would get along famously! Thanks for the great work that you do!

  14. Hin Man says:

    I am grateful for the article. I have recently taken on a 35 minutes walk routine with co-workers before lunch. I enjoyed the routine so much that I have been adding a daily walk routine after dinner for 25 minutes. The walking routines don’t add to hunger and physical tiredness but wellness and alertness feeling throughout the day.

    Just a side question on the timing of the walk in lunch. Which is better — walk before or after lunch time?

  15. AJ says:

    Thank you so much for writing a post about this. Ever since I started walking more throughout the day, taking stairs, doing errands/chores more rigorously, I have noticed a much more noticeable change in my body than when I was doing hour-long gym classes 5-6 times a week. Throughout the day, our bodies want to move!!

  16. I completely understand where you are coming from! Before May 2011 I use to walk roughly 2 miles to town and back 2 or 3 times a week just to do daily chores and small grocery shops. Since I have had a car, I walk to town perhaps once maybe twice a week but usually take the car. I did not notice much difference in the way I felt, or what I ate or looked figure wise, until a couple of weeks ago I struggled to fasten the button on my jeans and I was really confused. It is fascinating how them few walks a week make so much difference in the long run! Thank you for sharing!

    Diane

  17. stacey says:

    Hi Darya,

    What a great (and timely) post! Looks like I’m in the same position as many who have commented here — I’ve increased my workouts in the gym, stopped walking, and BAM put on weight!

    I’m curious about the Kettlebell and have been meaning to integrate that into my routine — I’m wondering which weight of kettlebell you use and how often you use it? I like Tim’s recommendation of 2 x a week for 20-ish min… is this what you do?

    Also can I ask do you still go to the gym 2-3 times a week in addition to kettlebell and walking?

    Thanks so much for the inspiration! (and kick in the pants :)

    Stacey*

    • Darya Pino says:

      I use a 15-20 lb kettlebell and do 3, 3-4 minute sessions. Can’t do more than that. I do this 1-2 times a week, as a supplement to my normal gym activity (i.e. instead of or in addition to free weights). I workout 4-6 days/week.

  18. Alec says:

    Great article! I moved house and found that I can now cycle to work. I’m really feeling the benefits. If you can somehow work out how to fit exercise as part of your daily routine or travel habits, it’s a lot easier to maintain. Sadly I used to read on the train, and read very little now.

  19. Hi Darya,

    My ex, a nutritionist, used to keep it really simple and recommend her clients walk 1 hour a day, every day, if they wanted to lose weight.

    And if they wanted to lose more, she’d recommend 2 hours.

    And it worked.

    Amazing how we overcomplicate things sometimes.

    Best,

    Etienne

  20. Joe says:

    Yep, so true.

    Just think about the difference btwn a first world desk jockey and some indigenous person… one hardly moves and the other hardly stops moving. The body displays the difference.

    Yep.

    -Joe

  21. Allie says:

    Muscle also weighs more than fat… so if you improved your workout and didn’t look/feel worse, you could have been gaining muscle, no?

    This article is really interesting though. I know I ate WAY too much in college, yet I never gained any weight. This is definitely because I walked around so much, worked in 2 jobs that required lots of standing and walking, etc. It’s great.

  22. Nick says:

    Great post – I’ve been spending time looking at ways I can be more active at work – and lots of these non-exercise activities are perfect (along with some simple workouts I can do in the office without too many people thinking I’m crazy….). I already exercise regularly – but I think NEAT is a great way to avoid becoming a “fitness coach potato” (working out for 30 minutes a day – then sitting and doing nothing for the other 23 1/2 hours during the day….).

  23. Donna says:

    Great Article on exercise, it’s all to easy to slip out of exercise and as you said find you have put on a few pounds over time!
    Interval training, tabata training and weight training are great for women especially as we get older and no it takes a lot and I mean a lot of weight training to build muscle, so don’t worry ladies weight training only makes you tone and trim!
    D

  24. Valeria says:

    Hmmmm living in Florida, even walking you still sweat.

  25. Donna says:

    Like your post on NEAT as its so true, we call it Slim Speed, are you doing activities at slim speed- with life and vigor as it all burns calories!
    Well done for just increasing your NEAT and dropping weight!
    D

  26. Marie says:

    So true! Thank you for posting this. Finally a clear way to explain what happens when you get a desk job!
    I found that bike commuting really helped but now I have moved and there is no longer a safe route to work coming from that direction. So now I have to make a conscious decision to do some NEAT throughout my work day.

  27. Irene says:

    I wonder how many others have found that their weight has gone up just a little during this terrible winter, even though they’re eating the same amount? I live in New York City, and usually take it for granted that I’ll walk to something that’s just 10 blocks, or 1/2 mile, away. Not this year, which has been too cold and icy. I’m convinced that spring–if it ever comes–will take care of that extra pound or two.

  28. Helen says:

    Darya-

    This was a great article and it totally resonated with me. I am a junior in college and for the first time all of my classes are in one building very close to my house this semester. End result: far less walking, and a little bit of weight gain. I always take the steps, and I workout at least four times a week (sometimes less sometimes more, depending on my schedule) and I guess I never really realized all of that walking I did around campus made such a difference. Is there any other way aside from leisurely walks during the day to fit in that extra movement I have been missing this semester? I’m going to try to start walking everyday when I get back from the gym now, but if the weather gets below freezing again I can’t make any promises! One more question- what is your favorite kettlebell workout? I’m slowly starting to incorporate them into my workouts.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Simply being aware of how many steps you take can be really motivating for you to take the stairs more, or park farther away. I recommend a pedometer and trying to a little more here and there.

      I just do kettlebell swings in the morning (100 swings with 25lbs). Does wonders for the backside ;)

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